Abducted Indian workers in Iraq 'promised freedom'

NEW DELHI (AFP) - Several families of 40 Indian construction workers abducted in strife-torn northern Iraq say they have spoken with the men, whose captors claim they will be freed unharmed, reports said Thursday.

India's foreign ministry announced on Wednesday that the 40 workers had been abducted in recent days in the Iraqi city of Mosul, which Sunni militants have overrun in a deadly ongoing insurgency.

The ministry said no demands for ransom had been made and the workers' whereabouts, along with who was responsible for the abductions, were not known.

But Mr Charanjit Singh said his brother called him on Wednesday "for a couple of minutes" to tell him the workers were safe and that their captors had claimed they would be released if someone from the government made contact.

"He said he and his co-workers from India were all safe and not held hostage," Mr Singh told The Hindu newspaper from his home in northern Punjab state.

"They say (the militants) will release them if someone responsible from the Indian military or government comes to collect them," Mr Singh added.

Ms Gurpinder Kaur said her brother told her on June 15 that the militants had promised to free the group "safely without any conditions" if New Delhi got in touch with them.

She added that the Indians were taken by the militants on June 11, according to the Indian Express newspaper.

While the families said the phone calls were cause for optimism, the government has warned that the situation on the ground remains "very difficult".

Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have taken over vast swathes of territory as they advance on Baghdad, amid fears that the country could fall apart.

With details of the abduction sketchy, other families said they feared for the fate of the workers, who had been earning money on construction projects to send back home.

"We are hearing all sorts of news from Iraq, visuals on the television are frightening and we are very worried about him," Ms Ranjit Kaur told the Hindustan Times of her son Jatinder Singh.

Mr Parkash Singh Bada - chief minister of Punjab, where most of the workers come from - said "we are ready to bear all the expenses for bringing them back." Humanitarian agencies and the Iraqi government have confirmed the abduction of the workers, who were employed by the Tariq Noor Al Huda construction company, India's foreign ministry said.

About 10,000 Indian nationals are currently in Iraq with some 100 caught in violence-hit areas, the ministry added.

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